The story of the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association and the early years of the development of Oak Bluffs is one familiar to many Islanders. However, an equally important piece of history that sheds light not just on the founding of Oak Bluffs, but the Island as a whole, is a less-told tale.
Now visitors to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum can learn more about the rich history of one of the Island’s most influential citizens, the church he built, the mission from which it sprang, and the vital multiracial community that built up around it. The Bradley Memorial Church, which is still standing at Masonic Avenue in Oak Bluffs, but whose fate is unknown, is the focus of a richly layered exhibit called “I Was a Stranger and You Took Me In: Bradley Memorial Church and the Family that Built a Community.”
In 1901, a remarkable man traveled from his home in Jamaica to Martha’s Vineyard, where he devoted the rest of his life to bringing together the multicultural inhabitants of the Island and enriching the life of the community. Oscar Denniston began his life on the Vineyard as a chaplain at the Vineyard Haven Seaman’s Bethel. However, he quickly became involved in another charitable organization, a mission founded by Susan Bradley, dedicated to helping the Island’s growing immigrant population to gain citizenship and integrate into the community.
Eventually, the Oakland Mission, as Ms. Bradley’s organization was called, evolved into the Bradley Square Memorial Church, under Mr. Denniston’s leadership. The church became a gathering place for Islanders of all nationalities. Not only was Bradley Square the first church to welcome black members on the Vineyard, the combination home and chapel was a true melting pot, bringing together Wampanoags, African Americans, Portuguese immigrants, and those of other European lineages under one roof.
The museum exhibit clearly shows a space that was far more than a house of worship. Through the many artifacts on display and the recordings of oral histories, visitors can see that the Bradley Square Church was a place of recreation, entertainment, socializing, and, most important, community building.
In 2009, when the Bradley Square house was taken over by Island Affordable Housing, the museum was granted the contents in their entirety. The house was full of all types of artifacts from the chapel, as well as from the family home which housed members of the Denniston family for close to a century. The museum received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to hire archivist Lara Ullman to catalog the collection, a nine-month project.
The current exhibit was curated by Ms. Ullman, along with the museum’s oral history curator, Linsey Lee, and Assistant Curator Anna Carringer. “The house was so incredible,” says Ms. Carringer. “They saved everything.”
It was no easy task selecting which items to feature in the exhibit. However, the curators wanted to present a wide range that would not only spotlight the church, but also provide interesting relics of the times that would serve to represent the interests of the family.
Front and center in the very attractive and diverse exhibit is the original pulpit from the chapel. Like everything extracted from the church, the pulpit is very colorful and original. Other unique items include a beautiful glass Communion set with a decanter, a wafer plate, and a tray full of tiny glasses; hand-stitched miniature socks that were used for a unique fundraising event that is described in detail; and a photo of the old Noepe theater, which housed the growing congregation during the busy summer months.
The wealth of personal items salvaged from the family home includes colorfully illustrated books of sheet music, an old basketball uniform, some lovingly decorated certificates, and lots of pictures of various members of the large family and their friends and congregants.
The exhibit, housed in the museum’s main gallery, is aesthetically inviting, and the walls are even painted in a bright mustard hue to match the original colors of the church. Artifacts from the chapel, such as the pulpit and a large hymn banner, are artistically rendered and very well preserved. A tiny replica of an old Portuguese horse-drawn cart is included in the exhibit to represent the sector of the Island population that inspired the founding of the original mission. An old account book stands open to a page that features many of the Portuguese family names, like Alley and Silva, that are still popular on the Island today.
“We’ve never before been able to put an exhibit together that had this much to tell the story,” says Ms. Lee. “It’s a remarkable story, a truly American story about the Rev. Denniston coming to America from Jamaica, and making his way in his new home.”
Ms. Lee has captured much of this story in a series of videotaped interviews with Oscar Denniston’s son, Dean K. Denniston. Dean, who passed away in 2009, was the youngest of the seven Denniston children. Using many archival images, Ms. Lee has created a fascinating short video from the interviews. With a keen memory for details and the skill of a true raconteur, Mr. Denniston recalls growing up among this remarkable family with a clarity that truly brings the story to life. The video is well worth the 15 or so minutes it takes to watch.
Among his memories, Mr. Denniston talks about his father hiring a tour bus to collect parishioners from the up-Island towns, the visiting ministers from all over that were invited to conduct services, the days of silent movies in Oak Bluffs, and visits from the famed Jenkins Orphanage Band, whom Oscar Denniston helped out with arrangements when they came to Oak Bluffs to perform.
Not only does the video capture an earlier time on the Vineyard, it is a true testament to a man who was clearly as important a figure in early Island history as anyone. In the short film, the younger Mr. Denniston praises his father, saying, “I tell people today that in my opinion, my father was way ahead of his times. He would help people regardless of race and color. He was colorblind.”
“I Was a Stranger and You Took Me In: Bradley Memorial Church and the Family that Built a Community” is on display at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through Sept. 20.